The Big Hurt
Week 1 of the French Open was marked by one injury after another
Before the French Open, fifth-seeded Gustavo Kuerten told friends
that he hoped to be the last man in the draw standing. He could
have been speaking literally. Consider the list of top male
players who belonged on injured reserve by the end of the
tournament's first week.
Andre Agassi, the top seed and defending champ, got a blister on
his right big toe midway through his second-round match against
Karol Kucera. Barely mobile, Agassi lost 16 of the last 17
games. Marcelo Rios, a former top-ranked player, retired two
sets into his first-round match after aggravating a groin
injury. Patrick Rafter, the world No. 1 less than a year ago, is
battling back from surgery on his right rotator cuff last
October and lost in the second round. Carlos Moya, the 1998
French winner who is fighting a chronic back injury, lost in
Round 1. Then there was No. 2 seed Pete Sampras, who has had a
litany of ailments in the past few years and lost in the first
round to Mark Philippoussis. Says Rafter, "I don't know if it's
an injury bug, but it seems staying healthy is as important to
being successful as playing good tennis."
The women aren't immune. Earlier this spring the top four players
from last year--Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis and Venus and
Serena Williams--were sidelined with various ailments. In Paris,
Davenport, seeded second but hampered by a back injury, lost her
opening match to Dominique Van Roost. Serena Williams was home in
Florida recuperating from a knee injury. Fourteenth-seeded Anna
Kournikova, hobbled by a sore ankle, lost in the second round.
How did tennis become so hazardous to the players' health? As
with most of the sport's ills, blame technology first. The
current rackets discourage touch and finesse and seduce players
into smacking the bejesus out of the ball on every stroke. In a
best-of-five match on red clay, the smacking can persist for
hours. "If you do any activity repeatedly for a long time, it's
going to cause stress on the body," says Per Bastholt, a trainer
for the ATP tour. This generation's players are the first who
never used wood rackets, which means they've been swinging for
the fences all their lives. "Let's not kid ourselves," Bastholt
says, "this is a demanding sport."
The rash of injuries can also be attributed to playing too much.
For years players have bemoaned the jam-packed schedule and the
lack of a true off-season, but the lure of ranking points and
ever-increasing prize money, coupled with the demands of
sponsors, makes it difficult for players to curtail their
schedules. The ATP tour tried to alleviate that problem by
creating the Masters Series format, which puts heavy emphasis on
13 tournaments, including the Grand Slams. Oddly, this change may
be having the reverse effect. "So much is at stake at those
[Masters Series] tournaments that you feel you need to play them
even if you're not 100 percent," says a top 50 player. "You miss
those ranking points and that prize money, and it's like
someone's taking bread off your table."
What's more, the depth of talent, particularly on the men's side,
means matches are more grueling. Time was, seeded players breezed
through the first few rounds of a tournament. In Paris last week,
fourth-seeded Yevgeny Kafelnikov had to play 14 sets to survive
his first three matches. The tight competition compels players to
train harder, causing even more wear and tear on their bodies.
"Sometimes you just need to rest," says Rafter, "but if you don't
keep up the training, your results often show it."
Despite the wealth of anecdotal evidence, trainers on both tours
question whether there's an increase in injuries. Doug Spreen, a
Cincinnati-based trainer for the ATP tour, claims that the rate
at which players retire in mid-match with injuries has hovered at
around 2% for the past decade. (Through three rounds in Paris,
however, six of the 116 men's matches ended when an injured
player threw in the towel.) Still, those who have been around the
sport say they can't recall a time when tennis players were more
injury-prone. "We used to get tennis elbow, but that was about
it," says 1966 French Open champion Tony Roche, who's now a
coach. "Today you see everything."
De Los Rios Is Back
Paraguayan Takes Paris
While most WTA players were preparing for the French Open at
events in Hilton Head, Hamburg and Rome, Rossana De Los Rios of
Paraguay was playing in slightly less exotic locales. In hopes of
earning enough points to get a spot in the qualifying draw in
Paris, De Los Rios, 24, spent this spring on the challenger
circuit in places like Sarasota, Fla.; Norcross, Ga.; and La
Canada, Calif. "They all blend together," says her husband,
Gustavo Neffa. "I just know we stayed in a lot of motels."
No longer. De Los Rios has become tennis's latest made-for-TV
story. In 1992 she won the French Open junior title, beating
Paola Suarez of Argentina in the final. After an unremarkable two
years on the WTA tour, she left tennis and married Neffa, a pro
soccer player in Paraguay and Argentina. In '97 she gave birth to
their daughter, Ana Paula. "I was very happy," says De Los Rios,
"but I missed tennis."
A year ago she decided to give tennis one last chance. Playing
primarily in regional events, she earned a ranking of No. 151,
high enough to make the qualifying field at Roland Garros. She
not only blazed through the qualies but also won her first three
matches in the main draw, including an exhilarating 7-5, 6-7, 6-4
upset of ninth-seeded Amanda Coetzer. When De Los Rios left the
court, she broke down in tears in the tunnel beneath Court
Suzanne Lenglen. After hugging Neffa and Ana Paula, she was
greeted by a legion of other players, including Suarez, who is
ranked No. 46. "It's still so unbelievable," says De Los Rios,
who lost to Marta Marrero of Spain on Sunday. "If you told me a
year ago I'd be in the fourth round of the French Open, I
would've said, 'No way.'"
Vince Spadea's Slump
Making a Habit Of Losing
As Andre Agassi knows, tennis can be a game of dramatic highs and
lows. But the abyss into which Vince Spadea has plunged is
virtually unfathomable. After having finished 1999 with a
career-best No. 20 ranking--and an 8-3 record against players
ranked in the top 10--the 25-year-old Spadea is in free fall. His
7-5, 7-5, 6-4 first-round loss at the French Open to 13th seed
Tim Henman was his 19th straight defeat, one shy of the ATP tour
record, set in 1986 and '87 by Gary Donnelly. "Obviously I'm a
better player than where I stand now," says Spadea. "This thing
is a long haul, and I'm not going to let it get to me."
Spadea has been beset by injuries this year, and he had to
default a match in Portugal because of food poisoning. Most of
his problems, though, are above the neck. The notoriously
temperamental Spadea is quick to blow a gasket when he falls
behind early in a match. Formerly coached by his demanding father
and namesake, young Vince recently retained ex-Wimbledon champ
Pat Cash to help extricate him from his slump.
Spadea's ranking has plummeted. Heading into the French Open, he
was 129th. Winless since last fall, Spadea is in danger of
falling so far so fast that he'll have to qualify to reach the
main draw of most big events. Spadea will try to end his
ignominious streak next week at Queens Club, a Wimbledon tune-up
in London, but things might get worse before they get better. Of
his 33 victories last season, none were on grass.
COLOR PHOTO: CARYN LEVY A big-toe blister helped knock Agassi out of the French and end his hope for another Grand Slam.
COLOR PHOTO: RON C. ANGLE Spadea, whose loss streak hit 19 matches, is one shy of tying the record for defeats.
by the numbers
5 Matches Alexandra Stevenson won in reaching the 1999 Wimbledon
9 Matches Stevenson has won in 19 tournaments since.
4 U.S. men (Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jan Michael Gambill and
Paul Goldstein) who advanced past the first round of the French
10 Argentine men who advanced past the first round.
8 Months since Venus Williams won a tournament.
63 Ranking of former top 10 player and first-round French Open
loser Goran Ivanisevic, who said spending a few days in jail
might revive his moribund game.